Review: The First International Production of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

Manila, Philippines--Discovering just how the commercial and critical reception of the stage or film adaptation of any bestselling book would pan out (regardless of whether it was first adapted into a film before it became a stage musical or vice versa) will most likely never be boiled down to an exact science.

We know only two things for certain about the outcome of Robert James Waller's novella THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY's previous adaptations: one, Meryl Streep in the film is distilled genius (as always) in her dowdy, aproned Francesca Johnson; and two, Jason Robert Brown (JRB)--through his contemporary stylings in lyrical narrative and breezy, fascinatingly climactic approach to orchestrations--deserves a niche among the pantheon of contemporary storytellers in musical theater.

To those who may be battling a Streep hangover (for being drenched in her thick Italian accent in the 1995 film), it would do you good to drown out her sensually raspy drawl aside. In this first international production of the Broadway musical THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, produced by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group (ATEG), whatever you may or may not hear as modest with Joanna Ampil's (Francesca Johnson) Italian enunciations will all be drowned out the moment she starts to sing. Right from her opening number, "To Build a Home," Ampil is multidimensionally captivating, her luscious soprano and wide-eyed yet booming command of the stage matches with the equal passion of the play's dramatic plot. She's almost uncannily genius, mirroring every plot conflict and turning it with the varying shades and hues of her pristine instrument, as she takes on one conversational, naturally-flowing JRB lyric after another, from song to song, from the first act to the finale.

Ampil is the portrait of a ballerina's perfect equilibrium, graceful yet moderately taut in her delicate concoction highlighting the delicate areas of Francesca's characterization as she transitions from her vivid memories of Italy to Iowa, where her youthful dreams begin to stagnate. She effortlessly mixes headstrong purposefulness with quiet yet powerful constancy--you see here how she deftly reverberates tenderly-nuanced flashes of imploding desolation, one whose ashes--when all cleared out--bravely defines the irony of somewhat purgatory-like existence lived amidst her heavily-peopled, familial, small-town existence.

Leading man MiG Ayesa (Robert Kincaid) exudes and explores a raspy nobility in this production. He plays "crouching vocal powerhouse, hidden classic movie star animal magnetism." He gingerly unfolds with an old school, ex-confederate soldier's romantic appeal similar to more forward-thinking liberties--taking George Ashley Wilkes of the mammoth classic film "Gone with the Wind."

He masterfully, yet gently, intricately moves his very world around, realigns his stars and constellations left and right all the way 'round to allow Francesca to roam freely around it. Such genuine chivalry comes across strongly across the stage, and his oversized (and perhaps overstuffed, one can imagine) box of Francesca mementos, he lovingly rummages through in the final ode to the love of his life near the end of Act Two, is the perfect piece of exiting luggage to escort him to the end of his neatly-framed, compartmented memories of a love of a lifetime lost.

To those who came to the production with memories (and misguided expectations) of Ayesa flooded in flashy stage lights as his soaring vocals get amplified to concert stage heights, be prepared for a sweet gooey surprise: this production tenderly focuses on his genteel charisma and full-bodied and robustly textured lower registers.

In this production of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, the central love affair and other subplots revolving around it all leap onto the stage--caressed gently to a nakedly honest temperament by its straightforward lighting design (Jonjon Villareal), stage design (Faust Peneyra), musical direction (Ceejay Javier), and stage direction (Bobby Garcia).

The compact and retractable set can be best described as a long lost kin to the secret revolving stairwells of the Hogwarts castle--with the unassuming picture frames serving as the backdrop and allegorical tool used for storytelling--within the giant "picture-framed" proscenium. Its set design is always savvy, street smart, and in rare moments, even witty.

The ensemble and the supporting cast is categorically well-seasoned and chemistry-perfect, supporting and boosting a handful of delightfully light, comedic performances from the charming Mikkie Bradshaw (who can play a toddler for all we care, she can still get away with it) and the insanely talented Carla Guevara Laforteza.

As much as the show's book (Marsha Norman) makes a sensitive effort to present a well-balanced plot that fairly explores the perspectives and stories of its male characters, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is still, and for good measure, remains the story of the more tender gender. This is Francesca's story more than anyone else's, and this bold yet unassuming fact--like the character herself--at times has the innocent propensity to make a musical number or two appear a bit long drawn out or even seemingly somewhat misplaced.

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY closed its three-weekend run at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium on December 6.

Photos: Jaime Unson


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